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Shochu is becoming less of a secret in L.A.

<i> Shochu </i>is becoming less of a secret in L.A.
A Ginza No Suzume Kohaku shochu bottle and a carafe of oolong tea, pickled plums and lemon wedges on the counter at Yuzu Izakaya in Torrance. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Scoring a table at 9 p.m. on a Friday at Wakasan is a little like winning the lottery's Hot Spot. The crowded Westwood pub, whose rustic furnishings give it the nostalgic feel of a family-run countryside tavern, is a haven for Japanese expats who love to while away the evening drinking with friends and nibbling on chef Hiro Wakasan's multicourse

omakase

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.

And those bottles on the table? Most aren't sake. "The drink of choice for about 80% of our Japanese customers is

honkaku shochu

," says owner Wakasan, referring to specialty

and

regional

shochu

, sought after for their subtly layered flavors.

As with wine,

shochu

— which can be made from various raw ingredients and unlike sake is distilled, not brewed — runs the gamut from Two Buck Chuck-equivalents to grand cru levels. The most meticulously crafted are

honkaku shochu

and rely on a specific ingredient grown within a designated microclimate. Many have been granted "special geographic origin" status by the World Trade Organization in the manner of Roquefort or Champagne. Some may be aged like a fine Cognac and are so coveted they're sold by lottery at certain

shochu

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specialty shops in

Japan

.

As any Wakasan regular can tell you, Japan's recent

honkaku

renaissance has revolutionized the country's modern social drinking culture. Centuries-old distillers, whose

honkaku

were once consumed only locally and dismissed by Japanese sophisticates as country-style moonshine, found themselves cult heroes. Soon, niche

shochu

bars specializing in

honkaku

from a particular region or with a focus on

honkaku

made from a specific ingredient catered to passionate devotees. And sommelier-style "certified

shochu

advisors" in restaurants and department stores offered food pairing tips.

Southern California is probably the best place in the U.S. to discover and taste

honkaku

. Of more than 1,000 area Japanese restaurants, bars and pubs, many stock at least a few varieties to cater to a clientele that frequently traverses the Pacific and keep up on drinking trends.

L.A. cocktail buffs are probably more familiar with the bland

ko-rui shochu

(dubbed Asian vodka) and its Korean counterpart

soju

, so popular in fruity libations. Their prized "neutral" taste is achieved with multiple distillations. But

honkaku

, being all about flavor, are distilled just once, preserving the nuances and complexities of their ingredients, which traditionally are grains or sweet potatoes — although today's adventurous distillers have come up with a wild array of styles including date, chestnut and even tomato or carrot.

At Nobu Beverly Hills, mixologist Marcus Voglrieder pours a pure rice

honkaku

that exemplifies the genre's flavorful character. Produced on Sado Island by a small distillery exclusively for his company's restaurants, it's usually drunk neat or over ice like a single-malt whiskey. Still, "fine

shochu

is a mystery to most Americans," Voglrieder says. "It's mainly Japanese guests who order it."

But that's starting to change as many food lovers patronize Japanese places that make a point of keeping tradition alive.

At Otafuku in Gardena, an entire wall in the dining area is covered with shelving stacked with scores of numbered

shochu

bottles belonging to returning customers. Traditionalists at the heavy wood tables drink their sweet potato

shochu oyuwari

-style: poured into a cup of warm water (not the other way around), which allows the flavors to blossom. For barley

shochu

, cool water teases out the subtlest sweet nuances. Some use a squeeze of lemon to brighten the flavor. Others prefer an oolong-

hai

, a blend of cold oolong tea and

shochu

. (Some drinkers — especially young Japanese women — love

shochu

's generally low alcohol content of about 24% and its correspondingly modest calorie count of 35 for a 2-ounce pour.)

Owner Seiji Akutsu keeps on hand more than a dozen

honkaku

, including two from Kyushu: the barley Kakushigura, aged several years in French oak barrels, and the sesame- and barley-based Beniotome with a nutty aroma that hints of peanut butter. Interesting though it may be, his collection represents a fraction of

shochu

from about 500 traditional distilleries scattered across Japan. The oldest are concentrated in the south on Kyushu Island — a sort of Bordeaux of

shochu

regions where the hot, humid climate makes it difficult to brew sake.

Fruity mixed cocktails? You won't see any here.

At Yuzu

izakaya

(or pub) in Torrance, manager Yoko Saito presides over

maewari

, a formal

shochu

service that's as stately as a tea ceremony. A large inverted ceramic bottle comes to the table cradled in a stand. It holds Hama no Imota, a profoundly aromatic sweet potato

honkaku

that's been blended with imported Japanese spring water and "cured" under refrigeration for several days to knit the flavors.

Among the barley

shochu

that Yuzu stocks, Ginza no Suzume Kohaku from Oita, in Kyushu, aged in repurposed whiskey barrels, gets its gentle flavor from a low-temperature distilling method.

In West Los Angeles, Sa Sa Ya takes the prize for the largest

honkaku

collection — 29 in all. With its hard liquor license, this small

izakaya

can serve

shochu

that exceeds the 24% alcohol limit imposed on restaurants without one.

Sa Sa Ya's menu groups

shochu

by basic ingredient, noting their alcohol content, their region or prefecture and providing tips on drinking customs. It's a great place to compare

shochu

made from various ingredients.

The dry and delicate barley-based Ginza no Susume, for example, is a world apart from the powerful aged Tenshi no Yuwaku, a 40% amber-colored sweet potato

shochu

that rivals old brandy with its mellow, slightly sweet, chocolaty aromas.

Taste three sweet potato

shochu

from the same region and maker and you'll see firsthand how several other variables in its production shape

shochu

's flavor.

Key among them is the distiller's choice of

koji

— types of mold also used in sake making that convert starch into the sugar that will ferment with yeast and turn into alcohol.

Shochu

distillers rely on three major kinds: white, black and yellow

koji

.

Satsuma Hozan, made with white

koji

, is light with slight notes of sweetness. Kiccho Hozan, produced with black

koji,

is much bolder and sweeter. Finally, Tomino Hozan, made with the slow-acting yellow

koji

, is the most mellow of all with fruitier notes.

To make Ikkomon, an even drier sweet potato

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shochu

, its distillers broke with tradition, propagating the

koji

mold directly on the potatoes, resulting in liquor with no intervening rice flavors.

The method is common now, and most labels indicate whether a

shochu

contains rice. Iichiko Kurobin, for example, a barley

shochu

whose

koji

is propagated directly onto the grain to achieve a dry, even finish, is labeled "distilled from 100% barley."

The refined

shochu

made today likely evolved from

awamori

,

shochu

's older relative produced in Okinawa, southern Japan's subtropical island chain. It's distilled and made with methods similar to those of

shochu

. Based on Thai Indica rice, the smooth drink takes the place of sake for Okinawans.

At Aburiya Toranoko, the recently opened

izakaya

and cocktail bar next door to the

Lazy Ox Canteen

in Little Tokyo, owner Michael Cardenas and

shochu

-loving general manager Tommy Tomika have put two

awamori

on their brief but well-edited

shochu

list.

Cardenas pours a stoneware cup of Mizuho

awamori

, a low, 20%-alcohol quaff fermented with black

koji

and aged five years. He speculates, as have historians, that Okinawa could have been where

awamori

took root, brought by Thai traders. No one is really sure. But the

shochu

that evolved from it is delicious.

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